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Review: RoboCop (1987)

3 min read
Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.
Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop.

ROBOCOP (1987)
Unrated / Color / 103 minutes
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Also Known As: Робокоп
Purchase it: (DVD) | (Blu-ray)

When I was growing up, my mother policed much of what I watched. Horror films were 100% off limits, as were violent action films. If I was present during a film with a violent shoot-out, or a scene where an actress was about to show her goods, I was quickly booted out of the room, or had hands cupped over my eyes.

For a curious kid that was developing an obsession with the art of cinema, this was frustrating to say the least. Yet, oddly enough, some films seeped through the constant surveillance (most notoriously Q: THE WINGED SERPENT), and one of those was ROBOCOP.

I’ll never know if it was the mere concept of the film or what, but somehow that movie passed under my mother’s radar on several occasions. Though it was super cool and all, it didn’t quite have the impact on me that it does now. It wasn’t until several years after the release of the much-maligned ROBOCOP 3 that I finally revisited the original and realized that “holy shit, this is one of the greatest films ever made!”

ROBOCOP takes place in the not-too distant future, where Detroit is on the brink of collapse due to crime and poverty. The police force has been privatized after being bought out by Omni-Consumer Products (henceforth OCP), and seems unable to maintain law and order on the mean streets of “Old Detroit.” To combat the rising crimewave, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), Vice President of OCP, unveils a prototype of ED-209: A huge, autonomous security robot that is armed to the teeth.

Unfortunately ED-209 malfunctions and kills (i.e. obliterates) an unlucky executive during the trial run (why was it loaded with live ammo?!), allowing young executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) to jump in and propose his “RoboCop” initiative. His back-up plan is given the green light, and soon after, the wait begins for a “volunteer” to become the future of law enforcement.

Yes, THIS is clearly the perfect law enforcement droid of the future. I can't see how anything could possibly go wrong!
Yes, THIS is clearly the perfect law enforcement droid of the future. I can’t see how anything could possibly go wrong!

In steps family man/good cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who has just been moved to the worst precinct in Detroit. His first day on the job turns out to be a recipe for disaster after he’s paired up with a new partner, (the butch-haired Nancy Allen as) Officer Anne Lewis.

Their first mission together brings them into contact with the most notorious criminal in the city, namely Clarence Boddiker (played with zeal by Kurtwood Smith). After an action-packed car chase, Murphy and Lewis track Boddiker and his gang to an abandoned steel mill. Though Murphy and his partner get the drop on the goons, the bad guys quickly turn the tables.

Lewis is left for dead while Murphy is brutally tortured, then shot to pieces by Boddiker and his henchmen. Soon after, Murphy dies, but since he signed a release form with OCP before his untimely demise, Murphy is officially their property. When he reawakens, he finds himself in a lab as OCP scientists discuss the blanking of his memory and agreeing on “total body prosthesis.”

"Look at that fuck-in' gun!"
“Look at that f*ck-in’ gun!”

Within ninety days, Murphy is reborn as RoboCop: Crime Prevention Unit, and begins scouring the city for robbers, rapists, and other violent criminals. During Robo’s exploits, memories of his past life begin to creep into his conscious mind. Thanks to Anne Lewis’ correct deduction of his identity (“Murphy it’s you.”) plus a little extra validation from Emil Antonowsky (one of Boddiker’s goons), Murphy begins to remember who he is. The upside of this, is that he can now avenge his own death; the downside is that his wife and kid think he’s dead and have moved on.

With nothing but time to kill, RoboCop pursues Clarence Boddiker and friends, and discovers that they have ties to someone big in OCP. Who is this dastardly corporate villain? Will RoboCop be able to bring him and the Boddiker gang to justice, and avenge both his death as well as the death of his creator? Well, not to spoil things, but yes on all counts. Robo-Murphy beats the odds, and gloriously pulls off a huge victory for the good guys, all while regaining his seemingly lost humanity. It’s the feel good movie of the century I tell ya!

ROBOCOP is, in my opinion, easily one of the greatest movies of all time, and I’m not sure I can say anything about it that hasn’t been said before. Looking back, it seems like it was almost destined for greatness, but in truth, it had a bit of an uphill battle. Taking inspiration from various comics (most notably Judge Dredd and ROM the Space Knight), Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner penned the script, which was originally cast aside by director Paul Verhoeven.

Luckily for humanity, Verhoeven took the job after he gave the script a second look because his wife assured him that it was worth doing. And there really is a lot of substance to ROBOCOP. The main story arc is the Christ-like technological resurrection of Alex Murphy, and the resurgence of his humanity. This guy was brutally murdered, brought back to life, had his memory tampered with, was patented, and unleashed upon the world by a soulless (and often careless) corporate entity.

“We’ll make millions on the RoboCop toys alone!”

But despite the anger and crushing sadness that he can never live a normal life or see his family again, Murphy struggles on because he is bound by duty. Even when he has his own murderer’s neck in his powerful robotic grasp, Murphy regains his composure (“Yes. I am a cop.”) and arrests Clarence Boddiker instead of choking the life from him.

It is Murphy’s struggle to regain and retain his human essence that drives the film, and it’s what makes ROBOCOP so engrossing. Well, that and the over the top violence, ingeniously placed nudity that is hidden in plain sight, and the brilliant satire of corporate America. Every facet of the movie is borderline perfection! The cast is amazing and features so many dedicated, and talented performers, including Peter Weller (who took mime lessons to prepare for his role), Ronny Cox, Dan O’Herlihy, Nancy Allen, Ray Wise, Kurtwood Smith, and Paul McCrane.

Weller’s work in the RoboCop suit is unparalleled, and the movements he developed have often been copied with varying degrees of success by other actors. Kurtwood Smith steals the show (in my opinion) as Clarence Boddiker. He’s charismatic, cool, downright despicable, and provides a great foil for Murphy/RoboCop. He’s the kind of bad guy you secretly root for, but you still want to see him get what he deserves.

The soundtrack for the film is the masterwork of the late and great Basil Poledouris (who also composed the soundtracks for RED DAWN, STARSHIP TROOPERS, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, et al.) and it features some of his best work. I really dig the anvil percussion during Robo’s main theme, and the “Rock Shop“ track on the official Robo soundtrack gets a lot of playtime here at Vault HQ.

"I'm starting with the man in the mir-ror! I'm asking him to change his ways!"
“I’m starting with the man in the mir-ror! I’m asking him to change his ways!”

The special effects in ROBOCOP are superb, with gorgeous matte paintings (by Rocco Gioffre) blending in perfectly in many scenes, some great stop-motion animation for the clumsy (but deadly) ED-209 (courtesy of Phil Tippet and his effects team), and awesome makeup f/x to send poor Emil to a horrible, squishy end. And then there’s the design and creation of the RoboCop armor, which was tasked to a young makeup and f/x artist Rob Bottin. (Pronounced BO-TEEN!)

Bottin developed and built at least six different suits for the film (in various stages of battle damage) and according to the film’s creators and cast, he had input on some key scenes as well. The slow buildup to seeing RoboCop when he is first activated for duty was Bottin’s idea. He felt that a sudden reveal would not do the character justice and I think he was spot on!

Instead of just showing RoboCop marching out the front door of OCP HQ, they smartly obscure the full reveal. It’s actually a pretty cool way to introduce Robo, because we’re discovering him the same time that all the cops (and some of the criminals) are as well. Also, I feel like I have to touch upon the quasi-religious themes in this film.

At this point, most of you already know that Murphy’s death and resurrection are an allegory for the similar fate of Jesus Christ, and it’s not subtle. Heck, Robo literally appears to be walking on water during his final standoff against Boddiker. Verhoeven points out in interviews and commentaries that this was done on purpose and I really dig it.

It’s almost as if they’re implying that technology is our new God. This makes sense to me, because people are insanely tech-crazed today, to the point where it’s almost religious zealotry. Don’t agree? Well watch what happens the next time Apple releases yet another new version of their iPad or iPhone. People get ridiculously excited, and even wait outside of stores in a huge line, regardless of the weather or temperature. And they do this only to throw down a few hundred dollars on a pocket computer that is only slightly better than the one they already own. Tell me I’m wrong!

Robo-Christ: He'll come back from the dead, walk on water, and make you die for your sins.
Robo-Christ: He’ll come back from the dead, walk on water, and make you die for your sins.

ROBOCOP is a genre-spanning film that still stands the test of time. Nearly three decades after its release, and almost everything about it still holds up. Not so surprisingly, it remains a rather poignant film as well. Detroit has gone to hell in a handbasket, and corporate money heavily influences political elections, now more than ever.

Plus, there’s been a surge in the development of robotics in the past decade, and they’re making everything from robots that look human, to robotic exo-suits that increase the strength of their wearer. Heck, we may be headed toward a legit, real-life RoboCop in another thirty-plus years! How freakin’ crazy would that be?!

In conclusion, ROBOCOP is a near-perfect film that is far better than anyone ever expected it to be. So many directors and actors passed on the project when it was first started, and there were heated arguments on set about everything from safety, to lighting, to the bulkiness of the Robocop suit itself. But in the end, Verhoeven and company pulled it off, and created a film that will continue to entertain generations for many years to come. I unabashedly love ROBOCOP and can’t help but give it my highest possible rating of: